Power plant turns discarded prescription drugs into electricity

Have you ever wondered what happens to your perscription medications once you surrender them? It turns out one Oregon business is turning the disposed bottles of pills into energy. (SBG photo)

EUGENE, Ore. - You may have heard of or seen a prescription drug drop off box. Eugene and Springfield Police Departments both have them, and so does the Lane Community College campus. It is a spot where people can turn in their unused painkillers, antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals. But where does it all go?

In July, Springfield Police Department collected 14 boxes of prescription medication from the last six months.

"We fill those boxes with bags. We go out to our drop box on a once or twice weekly basis. We find anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds of prescription drop off," said Spring Police officer Lt. Scott Mckee.

Then they are off, with an armed escort.

Those boxes, weighing 520 pounds on this occasion, are taken to the Covanta Marion County Solid "Waste to Energy" facility.

"We produce 13.1 megawatts of electricity here so some of it's used for the plants operation and the rest of it is sold out onto the grid it will power between 7,000 and 8,000 homes," said Matt Marler, Business Manager for the facility. "So about the size of city like Woodburn."

Trash turned into power.

They are the only ones in Oregon doing it.

The boxes of pills go up the conveyer belt and join the rest of the junk in the incinerator, where it is turned into electricity.

There are other benefits too.

"Once there was a big concern that people were throwing away prescription drugs into the toilet or down their sink and it would end up into the wastewater treatment system which couldn't accommodate these things so it would eventually make its way to the rivers and pollute the rivers," said Marler.

It is a danger for the environment, and it has social consequences too.

"Statistically, people who utilize opiates begin by using prescription drugs. and then when prescription drugs are no longer available, then they advance to illicit narcotics on the street," said Mckee.

Narcotics that fuel crime, addiction, and even death.

In 2014, more than 14,000 people died from an opioid overdose involving prescription medication.

Those deaths now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We've heard of pill parties where adolescents get their hands on prescription medications from households and they pour them into a bowl and just randomly take pills," said McKee.

So in 2010, Covanta launched a solution.

The prescription for safety program.

All participating police agencies in Oregon bring their pill collections here, free of charge.

"I think this a good reminder to people to look inside and see what's in your medicine cabinet, your drawers," said Mckee.

Covanta says that between all of their facilities, in Oregon and not, they have collected 3 million pounds of prescriptions in six years.

It is a heavy load to bear, but it helps bring light to Oregon homes.

Prescriptions can be dropped off at Springfield or Eugene police stations anytime during business hours.

Springfield says they also do a yearly takeback weekend in May.

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